State of Trump-Hill GOP Union Gradually Getting Stronger

Congressional Republicans say their relationship with the White House has improved, though the president is still often unclear on key policy issues.

President Donald Trump holds up copies of his speech before the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Jan. 30, 2018, 8 p.m.

They say the first year of marriage is the hardest, and in their marriage of convenience with President Trump, congressional Republicans are certainly hoping that adage rings true.

The past year has been filled with plenty of low points, whether it be the travel ban that blindsided members, the failure to repeal Obamacare, or Trump’s surprise, short-term debt-limit deal with Democrats, which flew in the face of GOP leaders’ wishes—not to mention countless tweets and scandals ranging from inappropriate to alarming.

Yet, still riding the high of installing a solid conservative on the Supreme Court and then, at the end of last year, passing a signature tax-cut package, Republican members by and large believe they are in a better place now with the president than ever before.

Heading into their annual legislative retreat in the West Virginia mountains, Republicans are hoping to negotiate a unified front that can achieve some incremental policy victories this year, message their tax bill out of its public-opinion hole, and preserve their congressional majorities for the rest of Trump’s first term.

“The polls are challenging, and we’ve got a window of 11 months or so—some might say three or four, maybe two or three—to do some things,” Rep. Frank Lucas said. “I’m hopeful; I’m optimistic. But again, we’re still a young couple here. We’re still trying to figure each other out.”

Figuring out the Trump administration has been a challenge for Capitol Hill denizens, and indeed, for those inside the administration, too. The first year was marked by rapid staff turnover that made discussions between branches chaotic, according to a House leadership aide who is not authorized to speak on the record.

“The disorganization that you saw in the White House was a problem for the Hill because you didn’t know who you were talking to on what issue,” the aide said, adding that it became better when Chief of Staff John Kelly’s tenure began. “Kelly came in and professionalized a lot, pushed out a lot of people who didn’t know what they were doing.”

Still, even if the process is more streamlined, members still complain that it can be hard to pin down Trump’s policy positions. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month, Congress will pass an immigration measure “as soon as they figure out what he is for.” The same could be applied to infrastructure, and members had to navigate shifting policy positions during the tax-reform debate.

More recently, Trump confused members when he sent tweets that appeared to denigrate his party leadership’s legislation dealing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, before reversing course and signing the bills into law.

“On some of these issues and some issues yet to come, it makes life a lot easier for those of us in red districts if the president gets out in front more vocally,” said Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida. “He has done that from time to time. … But you can’t have mixed messages about FISA. Or, if we’re going to do something on immigration, if he’s not going to be for it, it’s going to be impossible.”

In fact, more than even the Robert Mueller probe, which Republican members are not outwardly concerned with, immigration presents the president and Congress with a minefield, members said. Trump’s support may be necessary to provide cover on a vote that could include provisions unpopular in deep-red districts, but leaders worry whether Trump would shun his nativist base.

Meanwhile, conservatives also believe the immigration issue is the biggest test for the Trump-Congress relationship this year.

“If you get some form of amnesty that goes through against the will of the American people, that will really throw him off,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, a House Freedom Caucus member.

Members said they hope that between the State of the Union address and Trump’s visit to the retreat, he can outline more specific policy points he wants Congress to put on his desk.

Still, others seem to have accepted that certain things about the president simply will not change, and they would rather put the onus on Congress to deliver the president a deal.

“I think there are times when it’s helpful if he’s very involved, and I think there are other times when it’s helpful if his involvement is behind the scenes, and I think there are a few times when really we need to work some things out ourselves and hopefully do that in a way that he feels good about the final product,” Sen. Roy Blunt said.

“I see him more as a coach and referee than I do as a negotiator,” added Sen. Chuck Grassley. “I believe that in the first half of the year he didn’t do well, but in the last half of the year he’s been superb, and he’s been continuing that into this year. … He wants results, and he gets results. He doesn’t worry too much about the details.”

In turn, Republicans in Congress have decided not to dwell on certain details about Trump. Beyond his lack of policy acumen, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, a former Baptist minister, said Trump’s character has posed somewhat of a moral dilemma for the party that has put a premium on morality.

While former President Obama was an upstanding family man, Walker said he disagreed with him on almost every policy issue. Trump, on the other hand, has never professed to be a saint but has proven eager to sign Republican priorities into law.

So, citing economic indicators such as high consumer confidence, low unemployment, and a soaring stock market, as well as Trump’s antiabortion policies, Walker said the choice is simple.

“As far as past indiscretions and past behavior, it’s hypocritical for us not to say, ‘I still have a problem with that,’” Walker said. “I can’t sit here and tell you I can condone past behaviors. I can’t. But you can’t deny how this country has come roaring back the last year.”

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